Vettel smashes lap record as Ferrari hints at true pace on penultimate morning

Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull look strong, but who will come out on top? (3:13)

ESPN's Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson discuss which of the top three teams will come out further ahead once the season starts. (3:13)

MONTMELO, Spain -- Ferrari signalled its intent on the penultimate morning of pre-season testing by setting a new Circuit de Catalunya track record, nearly 0.9s clear of the previous record set by Daniel Ricciardo on Wednesday.

Sebastian Vettel was back behind the wheel of the Ferrari on Thursday and the four-time world champion was given the task of testing the three softest tyre compounds over short runs. Vettel typically alternated between quick laps and cool-down laps over five-laps, improving on his best lap each time out of the pits as he cycled through the super-soft compound, the ultra-soft and finally Pirelli's new hyper-soft.

Track temperatures were lower than Wednesday and with next to no wind the conditions lent themselves to a quick lap on Pirelli's softest rubber. Vettel took full advantage and his fastest lap was a 1:17.182 on the second of two hyper-soft runs before lunch. If that wasn't impressive enough, there was a hint of more to come as his fastest first and final sectors came on different laps to best overall time -- meaning his ultimate lap would be even quicker.

The lap time sets a new benchmark for rivals Mercedes and Red Bull to chase with just one and a half days remaining of the test.

Haas' Kevin Magnussen was also working through performance runs and set a best lap time of 1:18.360 on the super-soft tyres to go second fastest. It wasn't quite as impressive as the Ferrari, but considering he was using a tyre two steps harder than Vettel the American team will be encouraged by the time.

Nico Hulkenberg was third fastest after setting his best time earlier in the morning using the hyper-soft tyre. He was 0.315s slower than the Haas after completing a similar style of run alternating between quick laps and cool-down laps.

Pierre Gasly shot up to second on the timing screens just before lunch, but it later emerged he had cut the final chicane and the time was deleted. Nevertheless, he finished the morning with the fourth fastest time, just 0.083s off Hulkenberg's Renault while using the same hyper-soft compound.

After reliability issues on each day of this week, McLaren racked up a solid if unspectacular 48 laps in the morning. Stoffel Vandoorne started the day completing performance style runs in the morning, but the track temperatures were significantly lower than those when the top three drivers set their times later in the day.

The McLaren then returned to the garage for over an hour and a half as the team checked something in the MCL33's data before Vandoorne returned to the track just before the lunch break for further laps.

Marcus Ericsson was sixth fastest in the Sauber ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the Mercedes, who focused on longer runs throughout the morning. For the record, Bottas' best lap time was a 1:19.532 on the medium compound, but there is no indication it was representative of Mercedes' true pace. Lewis Hamilton is due to take over driving duties in the afternoon.

Robert Kubica spent a morning in the Williams in his role as a development driver and will give his feedback to the team over lunch before handing the car to Lance Stroll in the afternoon. Sergio Perez was ninth fastest, while Max Verstappen was tenth fastest as he spent the majority of his time on long stints using the soft and medium tyres.

Times at lunch:
1. Vettel, Ferrari, 1:17.182, 84 laps (Hyper-soft)
2. Magnussen, Haas, 1:18.360, 73 laps (Super-soft)
3. Hulkenberg, 1:18.675, 79 laps (Hyper-soft)
4. Gasly, Toro Rosso, 1:18.758, 67 laps (Hyper-soft)
5. Vandoorne, McLaren, 1:18.855, 48 laps (Hyper-soft)
6. Ericsson, Sauber, 1:19.244, 72 laps (Hyper-soft)
7. Bottas, Mercedes, 1:19.532, 94 laps (Medium)
8. Kubica, Williams, 1:19.629, 72 laps (Super-soft)
9. Perez, Force India, 1:19.634, 68 laps (Hyper-soft)
10. Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:19.842, 77 laps (Soft)